How many operas do you have to see before you can no longer claim to be an opera neophyte? Last night I saw my 4th opera – am I an expert yet? People advertise themselves as experts in other fields for far fewer accomplishments; I’d say I’m almost ready to call myself a friggin’ opera guru at this point.
Nixon in China was .. different. I arrived at the theatre early and got to hear the presentation by Assistant Stage Director Stephen Drover, which was really cool – he gave us the low down on the staging of the opera and shared valuable information that really made a difference in how I saw the performance. I attended the presentation with Kelsey of The Anthology, and we both agreed that had we not known some of what Stephen shared, we’d have been a little lost.
Nixon in China was vastly different from the other three operas I’ve seen (Carmen, Rigoletto and Salome), and not just because it had more than one word in the title. For starters, the opera is sung in English (the others were in French, Italian and German, respectively). While it’s not the only opera (that I’ve seen) that debuted in the 20th century (1987; Salome was first performed in 1905), it’s the only one that requires amplification of the singer’s voices (something that is usually taboo in the opera world). Nixon in China also uses a lot of “visual trickery” to achieve effects, and relies on a surprising amount of projected action to convey the message. It’s not a BAD thing, but it definitely isn’t the norm and as such was unusual to see.
Also, this was the first opera I’ve attended in which I did not have my laptop. That was weird.
I’m actually a little unsure of how I feel about Nixon in China. When you break the production down into basic elements, each piece was fantastic – the performances were great; I adored Thomas Hammons’ portrayal of Henry Kissinger (which SHOULD be good; he originated the role) and Robert Orth made a convincing and at times hilarious Nixon. The set was fantastic – once I got over the weirdness of seeing special effects in an opera, I really enjoyed it and loved looking for things Stephen pointed out in his presentation. The ballet within the opera – a neat twist on Shakespeare’s favourite plot device – was beautiful; the dancers were graceful and lithe and utterly despicable because of it. The pieces that make up the whole were great.
And yet, my waffling persists. If I liked the performances and the sets and the theme, why can’t I commit to liking the opera as a whole? I’m just not sure how I feel about it. For starters, it was really, really long. Three acts, seven scenes, two full intermissions – we got out of the theatre just a hair past 11pm after a 7:30 start. I found the singing in English much more distracting than I would have thought – with surtitles and another language, I can quickly read the line then lose myself in the singing. In English, I found myself paying much more attention to WHAT was being sung/said instead of HOW. Because I did know what they were singing, it felt very “sing-talking” to me; something that usually bugs me about musicals. I was physically uncomfortable for most of the performance – while I know this has nothing whatsoever to do with the opera itself, it DID affect my enjoyment: one or more women around me were DRENCHED in strong perfume and I could smell it all night long, giving me a terrible headache; the woman seated directly in front of me fidgeted in her seat for the whole thing, blocking my view of the stage every few seconds. These things are unfortunate, and even my louder-than-necessary and extremely pointed remarks during the intermission (which probably mortified my poor seatmate – I’m sure Kelsey thinks I’m an utter lunatic who does nothing but talk about how smelly people are, and I’m afraid she might be right) did little to make me feel better. It just wasn’t my night, it seems, and the end result is almost 800 words to describe how I’m not sure if I could truly say that I liked Nixon in China or not.
Which, true to my nature, makes me feel terrible for saying. I am a horrible person!
If nothing else though, Nixon in China made me learn. I went home and instead of going to bed to prepare for my equally-busy Friday, I stayed up until after midnight reading the Wiki entries on the opera, Nixon’s visit to China, Chairman Mao, the Revolution, Kissinger, and Madame Mao and her contributions to/destruction of Chinese arts. I like learning. Learning is good.
This may be the first post I’ve written that does not include pop culture references or genitalia.